Last month, my Twitter feed erupted in joy when Missouri Democrats flipped state House District 97 in a special election. Even Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom Perez issued a statement congratulating Mike Revis (D-Fenton) for his hard-fought win. I went to sleep dreaming of progressive momentum, but I woke up to the harsh reality that the 97th district had sent another anti-choice Democrat to Jefferson City.
Our current legislative session shows that the last thing Missouri needs is more anti-choice lawmakers in Jefferson City. So far, 24 anti-choice bills have been filed, including fetal heartbeat bills and a personhood resolution proposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would deem fertilized eggs full legal persons. While Missouri and national Dems are celebrating the election of an anti-choice legislator in Revis, reproductive health and justice advocates have to add his name to the long list of legislators who need to be educated and vigorously lobbied if we are to defeat Missouri’s regressive 22-week abortion ban bill moving this session.
Why is Democratic support of anti-choice politicians an urgent concern? Because we need all hands on deck to defeat attacks on access to reproductive health care at the state and federal level. We are in a critical election year, and we need to make sure that those who seek to benefit from the Democratic brand are willing to champion progressive values.
I find it insulting and unacceptable that party leaders treat support for access to reproductive health care and abortion like throwaway wedge issues even as they talk a good game about fighting for everyday Americans. There can be no economic justice without reproductive justice. For millions of people in America, access to abortion and reproductive health care means the difference between just getting by and financial crisis. And abortion access and reproductive health care are winning issues. Recent polls show broad support for birth control access and abortion rights. More importantly, Dems must not overlook the fact that the “backbone” of the party, Black women, overwhelmingly support a person’s right to abortion care. It boggles the mind that any political party would run away from these issues instead of enthusiastically embracing them. And yet here we are.
As a reproductive justice activist and a Missourian, I have called on the state Democratic Party to work with candidates to increase support for abortion rights because ready access to reproductive health care is critical for equality and justice. After the general election in 2016, I joined the platform committee of the Missouri Democratic Party in part to advocate for stronger support for abortion rights. When Democrats fail to support access to reproductive health care, they undermine their work to build strong and healthy communities.
But what is often overlooked is when and under what circumstances anti-choice Democrats break with the party on key issues like taxes, racial justice, sensible gun regulations, and LGBTQ rights. There’s more at stake than you might think at first glance—namely, future support for progressive policies within the party. But that hasn’t stopped Democratic leaders from asking anti-choice Dems to the dance.
Let’s explore the courting of anti-choice Dems. In May 2017, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described abortion as a “fading” issue for Democratic voters. Pelosi’s shockingly out-of-touch statement came on the heels of Perez’s fumbling defense of the party’s decision to champion Heath Mello, a Democratic mayoral candidate in Omaha, Nebraska, who had an extensive anti-abortion voting record. Perez went on to derail his attempt to reassure abortion rights activists of the party’s commitment to abortion rights when just weeks later he met with Democrats for Life of America at DNC headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The national debate over whether the Democratic Party should support anti-choice candidates quickly made its way to Missouri. The new chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, Stephen Webber, caused alarm within progressive circles by seeming to signal a similar soft commitment to abortion rights. In an effort to clarify his statement, Webber wrote a St. Louis American editorial stating, “Democratic candidates are welcome to their personal views on abortion, but the Missouri Democratic Party will never advocate that they use an elected office to limit or take away a woman’s ability to make her own reproductive health decisions—including the right to a safe, legal abortion.”
I can’t even imagine a world where party leaders would welcome anti-union or anti-Medicare candidates just as long as they pinky swear not to legislate based on their personal views. But apparently we are supposed to trust anti-choice legislators to not do what all anti-choice legislators eventually do.
I’ve been a reproductive justice activist organizing in Missouri for more than a decade, and the last thing I want to do right now is debate whether the Democratic Party should embrace so-called “pro-life” candidates. I would have preferred to hear political leaders champion access to abortion because our state’s relentless war on access to reproductive health care hurts women, causes financial hardship, diverts millions in tax dollars meant to feed hungry children to anti-abortion fake clinics, and prioritizes the anti-choice movement’s agenda over the pressing needs of Missourians.
I wish this debate had been triggered by the Democratic Party’s enthusiastic and full-throated support for abortion rights, but that’s just not the case. The reality is that the Missouri Democratic Party has long had a diverse mix of candidates and elected officials, including those who are anti-choice, mixed record, or solidly supportive of abortion access. There is a national platform, which states, “Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice. We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured. We believe that reproductive health is core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing.”
And then there are the people who run as Democrats in Missouri.
Any discussion of anti-choice Democrats must keep it real about what being an anti-choice Democrat in Missouri means. “Pro-life” as a political position is just that: a political position that demands a pattern of voting against access to birth control, reproductive health care, and abortion access. We’re not talking about personal convictions that folk just share over beer while tailgating. We’re talking about how a person will vote on bills like those that have already been proposed in our statehouse: a bill that would would give pharmacists the right to refuse to fill prescriptions based on their personal beliefs, demand women get permission from a man to have an abortion, force women to endure medically unnecessary and inaccurate propaganda prior to receiving care, and gut funding for preventative care and treatment in a state with high sexually transmitted infection rates.
Missouri Right to Life’s (MRL) policy statements are a helpful way to understand what anti-choice politicians are about. For example, MRL is opposed to abortion; exemptions for rape and incest except “in rare instances”; emergency contraception because the organization believes “like Russian roulette, it may kill at any time”; and school-based health clinics providing birth control services. MRL also opposes the Equal Rights Amendment; embryonic stem cell research; chimeras (seriously); living wills and advanced directives; euthanasia; organ donations; and the work of the March of Dimes; the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Race for the Cure; and the Girl Scouts. When we demand that the Democratic Party resist calls to open up a “big tent” and embrace anti-choice candidates, this broad regressive agenda is what we’re fighting against.
What does that look like in practice?
Former state Rep. Linda Black (R-Bonne Terre) supported Missouri’s 72-hour mandatory waiting period law. Black eventually switched parties to become a Republican, saying that she hoped the switch would help her pass a bill requiring a doctor show a video containing state-mandated information about abortion to a woman in addition to verbally sharing the information and giving it to her in writing.
But Black’s abandonment of the Democratic Party wasn’t motivated solely by opposition to abortion. In a 2014 Missouri Times interview, Black said this when asked why it was important to switch parties:
It was such an important decision to make because, just recently, the ruling on gay marriage—and the Missouri Constitution very specifically defines what marriage means in Missouri. The voters voted several years ago—71 percent of the people—said that marriage is between a man and a woman. Here we are with Democratic leadership who will not support Missouri’s position on marriage. That was one tipping point.
Then there’s former state representative and current business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, Jeff Roorda. Roorda gained national attention for his incendiary rhetoric about the Ferguson uprising after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. He stoked controversy by fundraising for Wilson and for his comments after the not-guilty verdict in the trial of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley for the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. Jeff Roorda even went so far as to blame President Obama for a sniper attack on Dallas police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally.
During a failed state senate run, Jeff Roorda said his record while in office has “been consistently conservative on social issues my entire eight years.” He voted to override then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s (D) veto of a 72-hour mandatory waiting period for abortion. Roorda also voted to override Nixon’s veto of a bill allowing open carrying of firearms. But Jeff Roorda was a solid pro-union vote who spoke out against the Republican effort to pass regressive anti-union legislation like a so-called right-to-work measure. Missouri ultimately passed the right-to-work measure in 2017, and Jeff Roorda continues to be a controversial figure and to seek office as a Democrat.
Are the political pundits calling for a big tent on abortion also demanding the party accept candidates who think Missouri should have launched a political war with the federal government over marriage equality? Have they given interviews calling on voters to keep an open mind when considering the race-baiting opinions of divisive candidates like Jeff Roorda? Nope, because calls for a big tent on abortion are more about a strategic move to sell out abortion rights than accepting new political viewpoints to expand the candidate pool.
The aforementioned Rep. Mike Revis has already cast anti-choice votes in the Missouri House. Revis was one of five Dems to vote for HB 1383, a bill that requires two-parent notice prior to an abortion in addition to the existing requirement that a patient under the age of 18 obtain the written informed consent of one parent or guardian. His next bad vote was for HB 1288, a bill to allow tax credits for faith-based anti-abortion fake clinics. The next test Revis is likely going to fail will be on HB 1266, the 22-week abortion ban.
Anti-choice candidates become anti-choice politicians, and when they take office, they vote for regressive policies, medically unnecessary restrictions, and insulting hurdles meant to shame and humiliate women. Anti-choice Democrats in the Missouri General Assembly have not proposed policies to reduce the state’s infant or maternal mortality rates. They have not challenged the state budget practice of sending millions of dollars in federal hunger relief funds to anti-abortion fake clinics, and they aren’t pressuring the pro-life movement to take a stand against the death penalty, gun violence, or violence and discrimination against LGBTQ folk.
So when candidates like Robert Butler, the likely Dem nominee for state Senate District 22, say things like, “As a Catholic and person of faith, I will vote my conscience and defend life,” they are saying so much more. We know from past experience that these anti-choice candidates will turn into legislators who will refuse to protect LGBTQ Missourians from discrimination, will push policy to attack birth control access, will support the use of tax credits to fund shady anti-abortion fake clinics, and won’t vote to protect workers’ right to reproductive health-care coverage on the job.
To quote Maya Angelou, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Missouri Republicans are banking on benefiting from gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the unchecked influence of big money campaign contributions. Those aren’t advantages that developed overnight and they won’t be overcome in a single election cycle by selling out abortion rights for political expediency.
If Missouri Dems want to make progress, they need to respect that it can’t be achieved by circumnavigating progressive issues, including abortion rights. Then they must educate candidates on why it can’t be achieved that way and build campaigns that enthusiastically share that knowledge with voters.
There can be no victory, no giant blue wave win, built through the deliberate and strategic disregard for the key role access to reproductive health care and abortion play in the lives of all Missourians.